(Sample Material) UPSC Mains General Studies : Paper 1 - "The Freedom Struggle"

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Subject: General Studies (Paper 1 - Indian Heritage and Culture, History & Geography of the World & Society)

Topic: The Freedom Struggle

Gandhi Ji And The National Movement

When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi called for a nation-wide Satyagraha Against the Rowlatt Act in March 1919, his first attempt at leading an all-India struggle, he was already in his fiftieth year. To understand the man who was about to take over the reins of the Indian national movement and guide its destinies through its most climactic years, it is necessary to begin his story at least twenty-five years earlier, in 1893, when as a twenty-four -old barrister, he began the struggle of Indians against racial discrimination in South Africa.

The young barrister who landed at Durban in 1893 on a one-year contract to sort out the legal problems of Dada Abdullah, a Gujarati merchant, was to all appearances an ordinary young man trying to make a living. But he was the first Indian barrister, the first highly-educated Indian, to have come to South Africa.

Indian immigration to South Africa had begun in 1890 when the White settlers recruited indentured Indian labour, mainly from South India, to work on the sugar plantations. In their wake had come Indian merchants, mostly Meman Muslims. Ex-indentured labourers, who had settled down in South Africa after the expiry of their contract, and their children, many born in South Africa itself, constituted the third group of Indians that was in South Africa prior to Gandhiji’s arrival. None of these groups of Indians had much access to education and certainly: very little education in English; even the wealthy merchants often knew only a smattering of English necessary to carry on their trade. The racial discrimination to which they were subjected, as part of their daily existence, they had come to accept as a way of life, and even if they resented it, they had little idea about how to challenge it.

But young Mohandas Gandhi was not used to swallowing racial insults in order to carry on with the business of making a living. He was the son of a Dewan (Minister) of an Indian state whose family, though in straitened economic circumstances, was widely respected in his native Kathiawad. Further, he had spent three years in London studying for the Bar. Neither in India nor in England had he ever come in contact with the overt racism that confronted him within days of his arrival in South Africa.

His journey from Durban to Pretoria, which he undertook within a week of his arrival on the continent, consisted of a series of racial humiliations. Apart from the famous incident in which he was bundled out of a first-class compartment by a White man and left to spend the night shivering in the waiting room, he was made to travel in the driver’s box in a coach for which he had bought a first-class ticket; when he ignored the coach leader’s order to vacate even that seat and sit on the foot-board, he was soundly thrashed. On reaching Johannesburg he found that all the hotels became full up the moment he asked for a room to stay the night. Having succeeded in securing a first-class train ticket from Johannesburg to Pretoria (after quoting extensively from railway regulations), he was almost pushed out again from his railway compartment and was only saved this humiliation by the intervention of a European passenger.

On his arrival in Pretoria, where he was to work on the civil suit that had brought him to South Africa, he immediately convened a meeting of the Indians there. He offered to teach English to anybody who wanted to learn and suggested that they organize themselves and protest against oppression. He voiced his protest through the Press as well. In an indignant letter to the Natal Advertiser, he asked: ‘Is this Christian-like, is this fair play, is this justice, is this civilization? I pause for a reply.’2 Even though he had no plans of staying on in South Africa at that stage, he tried his best to arouse the Indians in Pretoria to a sense of their own dignity as human beings and persuade them to resist all types of racial disabilities. Having settled the law suit for which he had come, Gandhiji prepared to leave for India. But on the eve of his departure from Durban, he raised the issue of the bill to disenfranchise Indians which was in the process of being passed by the Natal legislature. The Indians in South Africa begged Gandhiji to stay on for a month and organize their protest as they could not do so on their own, not knowing even enough English to draft petitions, and so on. Gandhiji agreed to stay on for a month and stayed for twenty years. He was then only twenty-five; when he left, he was forty-five.

Gandhiji’s experience in South Africa was unique in one respect. By virtue of being a British-educated barrister, be demanded many things as a matter of right, such as first-class train tickets and rooms in hotels, which other Indians before him had never probably even had the courage to ask for. Perhaps, they believed that they were discriminated against because they were not ‘civilized,’ that is, ‘westernized.’ Gandhiji’s experience, the first of a westernized Indian in South Africa, demonstrated clearly, to him and to them, that the real cause lay elsewhere, in the assumption of racial superiority by the White rulers.

His uniqueness in being the only western-educated Indian also simultaneously placed on his shoulders the responsibility of leading the struggle of the Indians against increasing racial discrimination. Wealthy Indian merchants, senior to the twenty-five-year-old barrister in experience and age, appointed him as their leader because he was the only one who could speak to the rulers in their own language, the only one who understood the intricacies of their laws and their system of government, the only one who could draft their petitions, create their organizations, and represent them before their rulers.

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